Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Rock and Roll, like Jazz, Blues, Country, and even classical music, started as a boys club which women were relegated to watching. For the first few decades of rock and roll the definition of a drummer would be shaped by the power of Jon Bonham, the chaos of Keith Moon, and the lazy perfection of Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. Back then women weren't expected to play in a band, let alone be the drummer for one. So just how was a woman to "rock"? Well, at first she wasn't. It took a long time for female drummers to break down the barriers and gain acceptance behind a drum set. As time went on, though, female drummers started emerging and many were just too good to deny. Some of the drummers I grew up listening to were women, and many of them helped shape the player I am today as much as any man ever did.
The first woman I ever saw play the drums was Karen Carpenter, hitting a whole stage full of gear on TV. She had a set of Vistalites in the corner and a full set up of concert toms on a riser above that. And there was a little cocktail kit, and a huge latin percussion rig... and she ran around the room until she'd played everything on stage. Karen Carpenter was good! She was tight and fast and accurate, and did it all with a casual smile on her face. As a beginning drummer the idea of being able to run around a room playing any set up I wanted gave me a sense of awe, the way the kids in Willy Wonka must have felt when they realized whole garden was edible.
I was so young I didn't know it was unusual for a woman to play drums. I was probably too young to even notice her gender. All I saw was drums (lots of them) and somebody drumming. Karen Carpenter had a great feel for songs because by supporting the vocal that came out of her own mouth it was only natural that she lock into the groove. But as tasty as her parts were it was her chops that caught me!
In the TV show she wailed on each of the set ups and went through different instruments, styles, and tempos like there was nothing she couldn't do. Karen Carpenter was one of the first drummers I ever saw and her performance on that TV show opened up a world of possibilities in my young mind.
"I just judged Guitar Center’s Drum-Off contest and afterwards one of the contestants - a guy - came up to me and said, 'So you play drums?' Like, Duh! "No, I’m just here to judge the stage presence portion.”
- Dawn Richardson (Four Non Blondes)*
When I was in Junior High I heard the Go-Go's on the radio. I loved the energy and the simplicity of the drumming and was a fan of Gina Shock before I even knew she was a woman. My friend Scott had a younger sister who owned a Go-Go's record. I'd never seen them. I stared at the picture, matching the faces to the instruments and listened to the whole album. So began my love for the drumming of Gina Shock.
I bought every Go-Go's record after that and learned a lot about playing less and still rocking. Gina Shock created excitement by playing a little in front of the beat, and she did so with amazing consistency. In the Go Go's, her parts were carefully constructed and always locked with the bassist, and her drums and cymbals always sounded great.
"One of the clerks in a music store once said to me, 'Are these sticks for your husband?' I said 'No'. He said, 'Are they a gift for someone?' And I said, 'N-o-o-o.'"
- Debra Dobkin (Bonnie Raitt)
Just after high school I heard about a band that producer Michael Narada Walden had put together out of the best female musicians in the Bay Area. I went to see them and they were really great. Every woman on stage was a virtuoso on her respective instrument. Unfortunately, the name of their band was "Girlfriend". Half way through the show the drummer went into a solo. She played the craziest, wildest, HARDest, most technical stuff I'd ever seen, and in the middle of it she stood up on her throne, took out a compact, and slowly applied lipstick to her pouting mouth. I was stunned.
When everyone cleared out after the show I went backstage to tell her how much I enjoyed her playing. I came around a corner and there she was... crying. A couple of people were comforting her but she was still miserable. After a minute I said "Great drumming." and she looked up and thanked me apologetically. It hit me then that this drummer, who was so much better than me, was in a band called Girlfriend - a gig that required her to interrupt her drum solo to put on lipstick. (This drummer went on to do just fine. The next time I saw her was on an instructional DVD playing at Guitar Center.)
"...when we got to high school we thought the guys might be a little more mature, but they were actually LESS mature."
- Torry Castellano (The Donnas)
When I was in my early twenties I toured Canada with a band from San Francisco. The band was great but it just wasn't right for me and I didn't know why. We had an night off in Victoria and I decided to go see another SF band that happened to be playing in town. "Sister Double Happiness" was a great rock band and though we were all from San Francisco I'd never seen them live. They had a drummer named Lynn Perko (formerly of the Dicks) and I was hoping she'd be good. Little did I know I was about to have another growth spurt. They hit the stage and rocked paint chips off the ceiling. Lynn came out hitting hard and didn't let up for the entire set. She beat the crap out of her drums, spit and arms flying, hair stuck to the sweat on her face, and proceeded to show me "the rock!" I'd been missing in my band. I wanted to hang out with her, listen to what she was listening to, see the shows she was going to, live like she lived... so I got her number and called but we never got together. She probably thought I was looking for a "girlfriend". (Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?) Served me right for the time I spent staring at Gina Shock's picture on "Beauty and the Beat" album cover.
"I always have people coming up to me and saying, 'Wow, you actually play really well', and you know that what they’re thinking is, 'for a girl'.”
- Kate Schellenbach (Original Beastie Boy)
Sometimes things transcend gender. Sometimes people do things that are so good they up the ante for everyone in the field, man or woman. I used to tell my female students to go rent Prince's concert film "Sign O' The Times" and check out Sheila E's drum solo for inspiration. The solo in that movie shocked me when I first saw it. The speed and precision! It never lets up. It starts as a blistering display of hand and foot speed and just gets faster. The hands. The double bass. The facility. The SPEED! I saw it again a few years later and realized I had to make my male students watch it as well. I saw it again recently and somehow it was even better than I'd remembered! The capper is, she does the whole thing in stiletto heels. (Although I think that was Prince's idea. He was wearing them, too.)
Like most men I never set out to be sexist. I just processed and accepted the information I was given. Back then men were doctors and women were nurses. It's not true now but it was then. Men were the drummers and the women were just around to scream for the successful ones and financially support the failures. It took more than guts for women to break into the scene. It also took a kind of apathy to "the scene" in general. Being a female drummer gets easier with every generation, as more and more women emerge to show young girls just what's possible, but it wasn't always that way.
*Thanks to Drum! magazine for the quotes.